Tobacco lobbyist who made Dalligate complaint, no longer on ethical committee

Former Commission official Michel Petite, was Philip Morris lawyer who made Dalligate complaint to EC secretary-general

Matthew Vella
18 December 2013, 12:00am
Michel Petite (right)
Michel Petite (right)

Updated 19 December 2013

The European Commission will appoint a new head of its ad hoc ethical committee, after a complaint from three NGOs about an alleged conflict of interest concerning its previous head.

Former EC head of legal services Michel Petite was reappointed in December 2012 to a three-man ethical committee that is supposed to regulate lobbies and their influence in Brussels. But Petite himself works as a lawyer for the firm Clifford Chance, and represents tobacco giant Philip Morris.

The Commission saidit had decided to appoint Nikolaus Van der Pas to replace Michel Petite as a member of the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee. "Mr Petite recently informed the Commission that he wished to resign as a member of the Committee. President Barroso thanked Mr Petite for his important role in providing independent and impartial advice over a period of four years," the Commission said in a statement.

In his services to Philip Morris, it transpired that Petite met with Commissioner officials in September 2011 and September 2012 - a fact revealed during the Dalligate affair when MEPs received answers to written answers (no. 15, page 36) which also dealt with Petite's meeting.

Philip Morris operates a joint-venture with Swedish Match - the Swedish company that filed the complaint with the EC that Maltese entrepreneur Silvio Zammit had asked for a €60 million bribe to reverse a snus ban - for the sale of snus outside of Scandinavia and the United States.

The complaint, which Petite forwarded to EC secretary-general Catherine Day, led to the OLAF investigation that claimed there was circumstantial evidence that Commissioner John Dalli was aware of Zammit's bribe.

The Ethical Committee, to which EC president José Barroso reappointed Petite for a second term, gives advice on ethical issues, such as commissioners taking up new jobs in the private sector after leaving the Commission.

The European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, welcomed the Commission's decision to appoint a new head instead of tobacco lobbyist Philippe Petite.

"The credibility of the Commission's Ad hoc Ethical Committee was at stake. I am glad that the Commission has followed my advice to replace the head. It was difficult to argue that the client-related activities of the previous head did not constitute a potential conflict of interest. It is important that the European public's suspicions can now be dispelled," Emily O'Reilly said.

The Ad Hoc Ethical Committee consists of three persons and advises the Commission, for example, if a former Commissioner wishes to accept a job in the private sector might undermine the integrity of the Commission.

In February 2013, three NGOs complained to the Ombudsman about Petite's re-appointment. The NGOs alleged a conflict of interest, as he represents private interests in his contacts with the Commission and does not therefore meet the necessary requirements of independence.

At first, the Commission rejected the complainants' arguments and stressed that the complainants did not give any proof of a concrete conflict of interest.

In the Ombudsman's view, the mere possibility that Petite might have been influenced by private interests was unacceptable. The Commission followed her advice and appointed a new chair, ensuring that public concern about the committee's credibility and integrity could be allayed.
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.